Maria Emilia Calderon, a mathematician from Guatemala, spent two years working in the fiscal policy analysis department of the country's Ministry of Public Finance. As the only woman and the youngest person there, she found the job challenging.
It was difficult to get her co-workers to consider more efficient policies or even to acknowledge the corruption she observed in her country, she said. Nevertheless, she doesn't regret the experience.
"It's a reality that's kind of harsh for people nowadays, but I see it as an opportunity for the future," she said. "Not only for me but worldwide."
It's not empty optimism. Calderon may well have more influence when she returns to Guatemala after studying at North Carolina State University as a Fulbright Foreign Student.
"There are a few titles in life that stick with you -- in a good way," Indiana University School of Global and International Studies Dean Lee Feinstein said to a group of Fulbright Foreign Students gathered in a classroom on the Bloomington campus Tuesday. "And one of them is to say that you are a Fulbright scholar."
Calderon is one of 71 graduate students from 37 countries whose first stop in the U.S. -- en route to more than 15 universities around the country -- was Bloomington. This is the third consecutive year IU has hosted the Fulbright Gateway orientation. During their week on campus for the program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and administered through the Center for the Study of Global Change in the School of Global and International Studies, members of the international cohort representing 34 disciplines are introduced to their roles and responsibilities as Fulbright Foreign Students. They are also equipped with the skills to succeed in the American academic system and professional world, and steeped in regional culture.
From Tuesday's welcome remarks, the students learned that they had arrived in the land of Lincoln's boyhood -- a "wild region with many bears," as Lincoln wrote -- and that the limestone quarried just beneath their feet had been used to build the Empire State Building.
Local lore mingled with global observations in Feinstein's remarks. The dean cited what he characterized as "alarming statistics" about the dim view millennials take of the democratic process and their personal agency with it.
"Normally younger people tend to be much more optimistic and pro-democracy than their elders, so it's a bit of an inversion," he said. "And clearly it's a global trend; appeals to populism, nationalism, and other forms of intolerance or extremism are clearly on the rise."
The millennials in the Fulbright group, by contrast, go against the grain, Feinstein said. "Whatever discipline you're in -- whether it's a hard science or a social science or the humanities -- you're not only committed to your scholarship, but you're also committed to your idea that through your work, you can make some kind of positive impact on the world."
Calderon conforms to Feinstein's portrait of the pragmatic, politically motivated yet non-ideological scholar.
"We don't have a strong financial framework in my country, and I see an opportunity -- not only for Guatemala but for the region -- to strengthen it," Calderon said. "My idea is to study the math behind financial models implemented in more developed countries to see how we can improve."
During a coffee break in Tuesday morning's welcome orientation, Calderon met Abdoul Siddo, who is also headed for North Carolina State University. Having worked at Niger's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Siddo will be studying international relations in the hopes of "bringing creative and positive policy solutions" to such security challenges as the extremist groups that terrorize Niger and all of West Africa.
Siddo and Calderon mingled with peers including Hanine Mohamed, an engineer from Morocco who will work toward an M.S. in petroleum studies at Missouri University of Science and Technology, and Hayet Zeghlami, a middle school English teacher from Algeria who is headed for Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, where she will study education.
"You get to be a part of a great community," said David Henningsson, a lawyer from Sweden whose Fulbright award is taking him to New York University, where he will specialize in international legal studies. "This gateway alone provides me with so many new friends; it's a great network."
His interest in international criminal law emerged from his work on a major criminal case related to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
"It's getting more and more common that national courts are taking on cases that relate to grave violations of international law and serious crimes that were committed abroad," Henningsson said. "In Sweden we have taken in a lot of refugees -- which we should be very proud of -- but that also comes with great responsibility. As we take in people who have escaped from places of conflict and war, we also need to ensure that if there are allegations about crimes that were committed there, we have procedures to make sure that it's a due process and that justice will be established."
After the coffee break, the Fulbright students got acquainted in a more systematic way through a series of timed mini-conversations on the subject of such universal inquiries as "Are you a morning person or a night person?" The week's activities include courses on such practical considerations as "cross-cultural understanding and adjustment" and more philosophical ones, including "U.S. politics and people." Excursions include a picnic at Cascades Park to meet local Rotarians and Fulbright alumni over barbecue and games of corn hole, and a visit to Spring Mill State Park to see the Pioneer Village and a memorial to America's second man in space, Hoosier Virgil "Gus" Grissom.
The Fulbright Gateway Orientation Program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, as part of its flagship Fulbright Program, and designed by the Institute of International Education.
Yael Ksander is a writer/editor with the School of Global and International Studies.